‘Force Multiplier’: Dallas’ RIGHT Care Unit Responds to Mental Health Crises Across the City
This article was originally published by the Dallas Observer on January 2, 2024.
For nearly six years, Dallas has been seeing success with its RIGHT Care Unit, a team of professionals who respond to 911 calls involving residents experiencing behavioral health crises. The goal is to divert these individuals from jail or hospitalization.
RIGHT, which stands for “rapid integrated group healthcare team,” has several objectives, a spokesperson for the group told the Observer by email. Created in partnership with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, the unit hopes to provide on-site services to people undergoing a mental health crisis. The unit can also offer prevention and intervention services for people who chronically use emergency systems for their behavioral health needs, and can respond to these calls so other Dallas Police Department officers don’t have to.
At this month’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia called the RIGHT Care Unit a “force multiplier” for the department. He said the unit is able to respond to calls that may otherwise require the assistance of several patrol officers. “It assists patrol in actually taking that burden away from them whenever we can,” he said.
The RIGHT Care Unit was created in 2018 for several reasons including an increased need for behavioral health resources, the spokesperson said. The city also wanted to improve community safety and well-being while reducing the criminalization of mental illness and improving community engagement.
Around the time of the unit’s creation, the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute conducted a study that found an 18% increase in mental health calls to DPD’s call center from 2012 to 2015. Some divisions saw increases of as much as 85%. The study also showed that about 17,000 people with mental illness are booked into the Dallas County jail annually, and 40% return within a year of their release.
The unit is a multidisciplinary team made up of one DPD officer, a Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedic, a Parkland health clinician, a licensed master social worker or licensed clinical social worker, and a call center behavioral health clinician staffed by the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority.
The interaction with the unit usually starts when a behavioral health crisis is identified from the call center. When the call taker determines there is a behavioral health component to the call, the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority clinician joins in to establish the needs of the caller and relays this information to the rest of the RIGHT Care team. The team is then sent to the caller for evaluation and will follow up with the caller later if needed.
RIGHT Care teams are dispatched to a variety of different behavioral health calls on a tiered basis. There are low-risk calls where an individual just needs to be connected to mental health services. There’s also the moderate or standard behavioral health call, which may involve a disoriented person or someone who’s aggressive and exhibiting escalated behavior. High-risk calls may involve someone going through substance abuse or who’s a threat to themselves or others.
From there, each member of the team has their own responsibilities. For example, the RIGHT Care police officer directs the team on the scene for security decisions and emergency detention. The paramedic is responsible for medical evaluations and physical care of the patient. The behavioral clinician conducts a psychosocial assessment of behavioral health and social service needs. Emergency detention is determined by the officer on the scene based on the information from the rest of the team.
The RIGHT Care Unit has been involved in many success stories, the spokesperson said. For example, the unit helped a veteran connect to behavioral health care and Veteran Affairs services. It provided an evaluation to someone experiencing their first psychotic break and connected them to mental health services. The unit also assisted a frequent 911 caller experiencing illusions of an intruder in their home. It provided an assessment and re-connected them to health care for medication.
There have been some challenges expanding the RIGHT Care Unit, mostly when it comes to staffing. To address this, the city incrementally phased in more teams. Today, there are 18 RIGHT Care teams across the city.
The spokesperson said the unit has helped build trust between the community and police and has given people a better understanding of mental health. As they see it, the RIGHT Care Unit has played a significant role in educating communities about mental health and helped address the stigma of mental health being a criminal matter versus a health matter.
There have been some concrete numbers indicating progress. The unit’s work is credited for the decrease in the number of what’s called “apprehension by peace officer without warrant” arrests. In 2021, there were 6,377 of these arrests. This year, there were only 4,100, marking a 35.7% drop. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, the team took some 12,216 calls, served 6,873 people, and diverted 142 people from jail.
City Council member Cara Mendelsohn, chair of Dallas’ Public Safety Committee, said RIGHT Care has been very successful in responding to complex 911 calls that involve an urgent mental health need that intersects with public safety.
Mendelsohn pointed out the unit’s benefits, saying, “Allowing specially-trained police officers, paramedics, along with crisis intervention social workers, to take the time and use their skills to address complex situations has diffused many difficult situations, helped residents access the appropriate level of services, and created a higher level of trust with first responders, especially in dealing with mental health issues.”